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3TS Blog

The question we fear to ask: don’t let fear get in the way of helping someone

October 2019

When it comes to asking the important question ‘Are You Okay?’, Fear can get in the way. Fear of the response. Fear of our inexperience on the topic of mental health. Fear of appearing nosey. But these concerns don’t recognise the relief many people feel after they hear the question. Chances are, if you sense that the question needs to be asked, then it probably does. Listen to your intuition and don’t let fear get in the way of helping a loved one, friend, colleague, or other.

So how do we challenge our fears? How do we ensure we’re asking the question in a supportive and genuine way? To help tackle the fears that can get in the way of supporting someone we know, we’ll take a look at some of the common experiences that might hold us back.

Fear #1 – “I don’t know what to say”

The fear that you won’t be able to find the words to prompt and continue the conversation is very relatable but it’s okay to ask ‘are you okay’ but not know what to say after that. People often underestimate the power of listening. You don’t have to offer advice or a solution, as simply being there and listening is very powerful in itself.  It validates the emotions that someone is feeling.

Another way to approach the question is to say, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve not been yourself recently and I just want you to know that I’m here for you. Can I ask if you are ok?’

If they don’t feel comfortable (talking about their feelings) just encourage them to connect with you and talk about other things. Perhaps after a little bit of engagement, they might feel more comfortable to open up.

Depending on how the conversation goes, you might be concerned that this person is thinking about suicide. If doubt comes into your mind, it is very important (for both of you) to just ask about suicide so you can determine if your friend or family member is in immediate danger and therefore needs help. It’s OK to ask these direct questions – it’s OK to use the “S” word:

  • “Do you ever feel so bad that you think about Suicide?”
  • “Do you have a plan to die by Suicide or take your life?”
  • “Have you thought about when you would do it (today, tomorrow, next week)?”
  • “Have you thought about what method you would use?”

These questions may seem stark or abrupt, but if that person has been thinking about suicide it is critical that you know. Remember asking the initial question is probably much easier than the difficulties the other person is experiencing.

Signs that someone may not be okay:

  • Feeling restless and agitated
  • Tearful
  • Not wanting to talk to or be with people
  • Not wanting to do things you usually enjoy
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope with feelings
  • Finding it hard to cope with everyday things
  • Not replying to messages or being distant


Fear #2 – “I don’t want to make it worse”

Many people believe that talking about suicide will make the situation worse or ‘put the idea in their head’. But that’s not the case — this myth actually stops people from reaching out. We can’t make things worse by sharing a burden. Adding another person to your trusted support can only be a good thing.

Whether they realise it before they share or not, ultimately after they do share they will usually feel some relief and  feel better and lighter. If someone doesn’t want to talk about their situation they’ll say so. But there’s still value in asking. It may be a relief to them that someone’s noticed. The only way you can make things worse is by saying nothing.

You don’t need to know what to say. You don’t need to know the answers. You just need to be there for that person. Acknowledging their pain is helpful.

Fear #3 – “I’m worried they might get angry or offended”

This is a valid concern. Depending on how the question is asked, it is possible for someone to respond aggressively. A frustrated response might be an automatic defense and indicate that they’re not ready or willing to talk about it at that stage.

It is okay if someone responds in this way, it can be an opportunity to share your concern and express why you asked the question. Follow up by saying, ‘I am sorry for intruding, I just noticed that you have seemed quite down recently and I wanted you to know that I am here’.

It’s best not to take this angry response as a reason to step back. We encourage you to reiterate your support. By assuring them that you are around if they need you, might help them see that you’re genuine and not telling them that they have a problem.

Fear #4 – “I’m not an expert”

You don’t need to be an expert to ask the question. You’re not required to treat the problem. You just need to ask if they’re okay, listen to them and then refer them to someone who can help.

Depending on the level of risk there are many expert support services available. Remember, trust your instinct and don’t be afraid to ask directly if they are thinking about harming themselves or about suicide.

If the individual person is NOT in immediate danger of suicide or self harm, a visit to their GP is a good first approach. The GP will be able to carry out an assessment and offer advice on what treatment is most suitable. Likewise, freephone services such as Pieta House, The Samaritans and Aware can offer initial keep safe information to your loved one.

If the person is in Immediate risk of suicide or self harm, it is important that you do not leave this person on their own. CALL 999: in the event of an emergency or visit your nearest A & E Department.

* Remember, it is very important that you include your loved one in the keep safe plan. Even though your reaction might be to deal with the situation in your own specific way, it is important that they agree with and are in control of the plan.

Caring about someone is reason enough to ask. ‘You may not be an expert, but you are probably someone that they value. Sharing with a friend or a peer is often the first thing people do before seeking professional help. There are also amazing counsellors and psychologists all across the country who are trained to manage issues across the mental health spectrum.

Pieta House

Suicide support service – free helpline & face to face counselling support. For information & branches nationwide, see www.pieta.ie

  • Free Helpline (24hr): 1800 247 247
  • Email: mary@pieta.ie (please allow up to 24hrs for a response)


The Samaritans

Longstanding & trusted, Samaritans volunteers provide confidential support, befriending and listening to those in personal crisis, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  • Helpline:  Freephone 116 123 (callers from Rep of Ireland)
  • N Ireland Helpline:  08457 90 90 90 (callers from N. Ireland)
  • Email: jo@samaritans.org (email response issues within 24 hours)
  • Web: www.samaritans.org



Providing online, telephone & face to face support and assistance to all affected by depression & bipolar disorder.

  • Support Line Helpline (Freephone): 1800 80 48 48 (10am-10pm daily)
  • Email: supportmail@aware.ie
  • Web: www.aware.ie


For more information https://www.3ts.ie/need-help/do-you-feel-suicidal/